The following is a real story submitted by a real person.
Dear Security Cat™,
There’s a hip bar downtown where my friends and I like to meet after work. We were there for Trivia Thursday recently, and we all connected to the bar’s public WiFi to take advantage of Google’s infinite knowledge for our team (which we’re always forced to do because the area is a cell service dead zone). After lots of drinks, laughing, shouting, and (almost) winning, we asked for our tabs and without thinking, I checked my account balances to make sure I had enough to cover the bill. We all paid, said our goodbyes to one another, and left.
A few days later, I received an alert from my credit card company’s fraud department that my account had been temporarily disabled. Several questionable purchases had been made, and they wanted authorization before allowing any further charges. I hadn’t used that card since Trivia Night! After a nightmarish day of protective measures and phone calls, I called a friend who had gone with me that night and lo and behold: their card information had been stolen, too.
We never thought twice about using public WiFi, but everyone keeps telling me that’s why our financial info was stolen. We had used it several times before that without any problems and honestly, we didn’t realize anything could happen in the first place. We don’t want to give up Trivia Night at our favorite dive, but I don’t know what else to do! I certainly don’t want this to happen again.
What do I do? 🙁
Noob in Nashville
While I would never wish theft or fraud on anyone (even noobs), I hope that you’ve learned your lesson about browsing openly on public WiFi. Luckily, I’ve got an easy solution that will keep you from giving up your beloved nights of trivia.
USE A VPN.
That’s right, it’s that easy. Let’s talk about it a little more.
What is a VPN?
The most basic definition of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is that it’s software that allows someone to use an internet connection without the threat of a criminal hacker secretly stealing the data being transmitted (e.g., login credentials).
The longer, more technical version is that it creates a virtual tunnel between you and the internet – a private network – through which you can browse securely, since all internet activity and keystrokes will be encrypted while using it. The VPN service replaces your real IP address with another from a different part of the world, making your location and identity anonymous. (Some people, such as journalists and off-shore entertainment enthusiasts, use this feature to unblock websites that are only available in certain countries.)
Organizations often use VPNs to protect their corporate intranet and sensitive data, but many users don’t realize that they should be using them, too.
Why do I need a VPN?
You need a VPN to hide activity and data that you don’t want others to see without your permission. VPNs are vitally important to protecting your data from prying eyes. While you might not need to use a VPN at home, if you have ever found yourself in ANY of the following situations (or might be in the future), I strongly recommend that you immediately find a VPN service and download it.
- You have worked on sensitive projects while accessing public WiFi and free hotspots, such as in restaurants, bars, airports, hotels or conferences.
- You have downloaded or uploaded files that you would not want someone else to know about.
- You have sent work emails containing private company information from your device while in public.
- You have logged into financial institutions or entered payment information from your device while in public.
- You have shared private personal information on social media or instant messaging while in public.
- You have traveled and had to use airport or hotel WiFi, or have connected to any network that you don’t own, manage, or trust.
You might think this is overkill, but please remember that it often only takes one cracked password to turn your life upside down and make it utterly inconvenient. Connect to a VPN any time you’re in these kinds of situations. You might be the only one inside the coffee shop, but how do you know if there’s a creep set up in the alley out back or in the building next door, still within the WiFi’s signal range but out of your sight, ready to intrude on your privacy?
This technical stuff goes over my head; do I really need to use a VPN?
Yes, you really do need to use one. It’s honestly not that technical. If you can download and install an app to your device as well as sign up for an account and sign into that account, then you can use a VPN. No excuses!
Leave the heady technical stuff up to the geeks who make the VPNs and reap the benefits of their skills that allow you to easily and conveniently protect yourself with only a click or two. If you don’t understand how it works, it doesn’t matter. You only need to use it!
And if money is an issue, there are decent free versions available, too.
Okay fine, then which VPN should I use?
That depends on your personal needs. Do you care if the VPN logs your activity, even though it’s keeping that activity invisible to others? Would it be more convenient for you if it were bundled with an anti-malware service? Where will you need to download and use it: phone, tablet, laptop, or all of the above?
Many people use ExpressVPN with lots of success, but this is no way a product endorsement and it doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you. Take a look around Top10BestVPN.com and decide which option suits you best. If you’re looking for a free VPN provider, understand that you might have to deal with the service logging your activity, ads tailored to fit the logged activity, and/or weak commitments to your privacy, but if all you’re looking for is something quick and budget-friendly, then you might not mind the compromises. Of course, VPNs that you pay to subscribe to will (understandably) take your privacy more seriously.
So there you have it, Nashville Noob and rest of the internets: you don’t have to sacrifice precious connectivity in public just because the bad guys are out there trying to ruin everyone’s fun! Just download, install, and click to connect any time you’re browsing on public or otherwise unsecure WiFi. It’s probably a good idea not to enter ANY sensitive info or browse to financial accounts when you’re connected to untrustworthy hotspots, but if you have to you can do it much more safely if you use protection!
*The Security Awareness Company does not endorse or have any affiliation with any products mentioned in this column.
Latest posts by Security Cat™ (see all)
- How Does My Computer Connect to the Other Side of the World? - October 26, 2017
- How Do I Keep My Grandparents Safe Online? - October 19, 2017
- With All These Major Data Breaches Do Passwords Even Matter? - October 12, 2017